Around Mandalay – Teak and Gold

Day Two The second day in Mandalay was slow to start, possibly due to too much moto-taxi reward beer the previous night. I had met a German girl, Theresa, while outside the hotel taking 'fresh air breaks', and as she was at a loose end for the day, the three of us decided to hire a songthaew for the afternoon and explore some of Mandalay's surrounds. Our main destination was Amarapura, a former capital of Myanmar (there are lots of former capitals), about 12km south of the centre. The drive out of the city was one of the most enjoyable aspects for me - looking straight out of the side of the songthaew, I could see brief glimpses into the open fronts of the shops and houses lining the street, and this gave a pretty unique view of peoples' lives. Each house would only be visible for a second, but seeing the various workshops, retail shops, kids playing, TV watching, cooking, sewing, carving... it was entrancing. I tried to take some pictures along the way, but the bumpiness of the road meant I was constantly hitting myself in the face with my camera - not ideal ๐Ÿ˜‰ The driver had been asked to take us to Amarapura, but he stopped at an apparently random monastery on the way and ushered us to get out and take a look. We were a little suspicious/ cynical/apprehensive/annoyed at this initially - it wasn't listed in the Lonely Planet, and therefore couldn't possibly be of any interest to us ๐Ÿ˜‰ - but it turned out to house a variety of huge statues, old stupas, and sleeping monks and was a pleasant place to stop for a while. At Amarapura, we took a long lunch (which included really awful warm coconut juice), then a boat ride to the other side of Taungthaman Lake. The trip across was fun - watching local teenagers showing off to each other, seeing local fishermen taking in their nets, and watching birds flying low across the lake. We didn't have time to explore the far side of the lake after spending too much time over lunch, so headed back across the 1.2km U Bein bridge. Built of teak posts in the mid-1800s, it has survived remarkably well, and is still a much-used thoroughfare for locals - although tourists form a large number of those crossing the bridge nowadays. Western tourists appeared to be a novelty for the local tourists, as we (well, mostly Theresa) were asked to pose in photos with quite a few groups as we crossed. Strange to be on the other side of that equation for once! Once back in Mandalay, we headed to a local restaurant which served draught beer for a relax. And some beer, naturally. We were approached by a guide while at our table, and influenced by his enthusiasm (and a little alcohol), we agreed to use his services (and car) for a trip the next day.
U Bein's Bridge

U Bein's Bridge

Happy with her catch. They store caught fish in a big fold of their skirts

Happy with her catch. They store caught fish in a big fold of their skirts

Almost infinite Buddhas

Almost infinite Buddhas

A big frog - it's a donation box.

A big frog - it's a donation box.

Day Three Mr Oo (I think that's what he was called) picked us up in his car in the morning, and we headed off out of Mandalay for the day. Our main destination was Mingun, a town across the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, which had several interesting sights to see - though our guide seemed determined to show us everything else possible on the way there and the way back. For instance, just as we left the outskirts of the city, he pulled over next to a small encampment where a woman was looking after about 10-15 cows. We were slightly baffled by this, but it turned out that it was, in effect, a dung factory - the cows were tied in a line, did their business in a shallow ditch, and this was collected and sold as fertilizer. Very peculiar. Visits to two temples were a mild diversion on the way, but we had seen so many temples by now that they were all starting to blur together. They may have provided fantastic views across the river towards Mandalay in good conditions but... yep, you've guessed it, the smoky air made everything fade in the haze. A temple built entirely from teak, however, was something new and unusual - and this definitely merited a good explore - though the single monk visible through an open door working on a laptop did seem a little strange. Nearing Mingun, the road was suddenly full of people - possibly thousands in total - who all seemed to be in a very good mood. We were dropped off at one end of the crowd - our driver would work his way through (i.e. barge, parping his horn constantly) to the other end and wait for us. The event turned out to be the consecration of a new stupa, and there were lots of people dressed up for the event. Apparently local wealthy businessmen had been there scattering large quantities of money, which explained the large number of people - our guide chatted with an woman later, who had managed to get 15k kyats, or ten pounds, a huge amount of money for a villager. Mingun itself was a proper tourist trap, full of hawker stalls, bad art shops, and tat vendors. The three main sights were pretty impressive though. The bright white Hsinphyumae pagoda was almost glowing in the midday sun, and was unique in being the only white pagoda I'd seen in Myanmar. The Mingun Bell, a 90 ton bell was impressive and fun - you can easily sneak inside it and have someone bash the outside with a wooden clapper. The final, and most monumental sight was the main Mingun Temple - an enormous block-like temple rising 50m into the air. Unfinished due to poor astrological signs, and heavily damaged by an earthquake, the temple never reached it's planned 150m height, but you still felt dwarfed standing beside it.
Celebrants at temple consecration - reaction to me

Celebrants at temple consecration - reaction to me

The same celebrants responding to Daniel

The same celebrants responding to Daniel - they didn't seem to like him...

A monastery built entirely from teak

A monastery built entirely from teak

Our guide, his car, and the boob stupa.

Our guide, his car, and the boob stupa.

The return journey to Mandalay was a bit of a snoozy blur - our guide wanted to take us to his house for dinner and a massage, but we wanted to make sure all our flight details were sorted for the next day, and so had to pass on his offer. In retrospect, we could have probably chanced the flight bookings, as they've always just worked out in the past, but we we're both pretty tired after a day's slog in the hot sun, and beer and western food were calling. Day the Last The final day in Myanmar was brief. A taxi to the airport (which was surprisingly shiny and new) and flights to Bangkok. At this point I bade Daniel farewell, as he was catching another flight up to Chiang Mai while I was heading into Bangkok to get my laptop repaired. It had been fun travelling with him, and I hope he manages to get out into the unknown again soon. Myanmar - Final Thoughts What to say... It's a strange place, that's for certain. Ancient temples, the elderly rail system, decaying cities, chaotic bus stations, and shiny new airports form a curious melange. The people of Myanmar were almost universally friendly and welcoming, and though some of the sales people were very persistent, they lacked the aggressiveness of many others in Asia. There are still signs of government control everywhere - for instance foreigners can only stay at government-authorised hotels and guesthouses which then charge high prices. The leading brands of cigarettes, beer, and the country's major airline are also government controlled, or run by Tay Za, who sounds like a mafia don based on his huge amount of hotels and other business interests and dodgy government deals... I'm very glad that I visited Myanmar when I did - enough of the earlier obstacles to travel have been removed (tourist visas were extended from seven to 28 days recently) while there are few enough western tourists to keep an unspoilt feel to the place. Once the EU and US relax sanctions, and the likes of McDonalds and Starbucks move in, Myanmar will most likely become like other Asian coutries - I hope that doesn't happen for a long time.
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